Reagan is Gone: Neoliberalism, the Millennial Left, and the Trump Victory

by Sophia Burns on November 16, 2016

Ronald Reagan with the Clintons at a White House dinner in 1983. Image credit: Reagan Archive/Reagan Library

Ronald Reagan with the Clintons at a White House dinner in 1983. Image credit: Reagan Archive/Reagan Library

Even before Trump won, 2016 exorcised Ronald Reagan’s ghost.

Sure, Hillary balanced her talk of intersectional feminism with lavish praise of Reagan’s legacy. And no, the GOP’s leaders haven’t let up on the Reaganite cult of personality. However, the particular neoliberal consensus that Reagan’s presidency solidified has cracked this year. It’s breaking towards both Left and Right, and the neoliberal Center has not lost its position of dominance, but the Reagan Republican-New Democrat bloc has at last lost its hegemony. No alternative has (fully) won, but Trump’s electoral victory proves the fundamental point. After this election, the key point is no longer whether the neoliberal alignment will collapse. It’s for whose benefit it will be changed. How can the Millennial Left beat the Trumpist Right? In order to figure that out, we need to understand what, precisely, the era that’s now passing represented. What is neoliberalism? How did its hegemony come about?

By the 70s, capital knew that it could not sustain the New Deal/social-democratic compromise. As David Harvey argues, that decade saw the conjunction of sharp inflation and an increasingly powerful revolutionary Left that, by and large, existed outside the social-democratic establishment. While we’ve since been taught to think of it as far-fetched, at the time, the prospect of an existential crisis for capitalism was quite real. The ruling class knew it, and they realized that their only way forward was to ditch the compromise and destroy organized labor and the Left by any means necessary. So, through a combination of indirect economic and direct political pressure, they began to impose the set of policies we now call neoliberalism. Inflation would be kept down by high unemployment, low wages, and busted unions. The radical Left would be violently suppressed, the welfare state would be sold off, and institutions like the IMF would keep the Third World in line through “structural adjustment” (backed by the threat of US military force). Through globalization, the ruling class began to properly internationalize itself. State policy allowed capital to cross borders increasingly freely, and the finance industry facilitated the uncoupling of each country’s ruling class from the geographic need to rely on any given government. In the industrialized capitalist world, the vehicle for all this included the Right and, increasingly, the social democrats (a particularly dramatic example being the Mitterand government’s sudden turn from quasi-revolutionary democratic socialism to full-on austerity in France). Elsewhere, cooperative military dictators were often preferred.

In the US, New Dealism was never as large a concession from capital as European social democracy had been. However, it remained fundamentally incompatible with the neoliberal economics that would supplant it. Luckily for the ruling class, though, the New Dealist Democratic Party had never actually become a party of labor. Sure, the AFL-CIO’s bureaucrats were part of the electoral machine. Some of them enjoyed a lot of clout within the Party (and they certainly appreciated the state’s work to keep the union leadership purged of socialists, who could only threaten that relationship). However, even at New Dealism’s apex, labor had never held more than a secondary place in the Democratic power structure. So, Jimmy Carter was as willing as any Republican to go along with capital’s new marching orders. He agreed to financial policies explicitly intended to induce a recession that would dampen inflation by cutting the working class’s standard of living.

Of course, few appreciated having their standard of living reduced. In the 1980 election, Carter took the fall. Reagan, though, shared Carter’s economics and continued Carter’s dismantlement of the New Deal. But if their economics were basically the same, why did Carter only last one term while Reagan and his successor held power for more than a decade?

The imposition of neoliberalism over New Dealism began in the 70s, but it was Reagan’s political genius that created the party system of the neoliberal era.

Prior to Reagan, the disproportionately-Southern subculture of conservative white Christians had been essentially committed to New Dealist economics. While they generally supported Jim Crow segregation and opposed feminism, the social conservatives had also reliably voted for Social Security, financial regulation, and the Roosevelt economic package in general. Starting in the 60s, though, their place in the Democratic Party had increasingly been contested by the mass movements against white supremacy, patriarchy, and conservative Christian cultural hegemony. Exemplified most directly by the New Politics movement, the effort to realign the Democratic Party against segregation and outright patriarchy saw a great deal of success. But, by the 70s, the conservative white Christians had not dropped their economic preferences, and both Democratic factions would still vote for Carter.

At this point, it was possible that the social conservatives could have been kept in a New Dealist coalition. Racism and chauvinism are powerful, but material self-interest has a way of trumping ideology. Had some version of the coalition held conservative white Christians in on the basis of shared economic class interests, then not only might right-wing economics not have won, but the social conservative subculture might have been reformed through its unavoidable collaboration with the popular movements. Unity on the basis of class doesn’t automatically involve deferring to white supremacy and patriarchy. Rather, combining working-class economics with anti-racism and feminism still represents the only feasible way to dismantle the reactionary commitments of conservative white Christian workers. If you don’t bring them in somehow, then how, precisely, would you get them to change?

Jimmy Carter did not enact working-class economics.

Instead, he worked against even the exceptionally-pro-capital US version of the postwar compromise. So, without an economic reason to stay, the social conservatives jumped ship and voted for Reagan. Reagan’s economics were no better for them than Carter’s. But, Reagan appealed to their racism, their sexism, and their religious chauvinism. During the 80s, Reagan’s great accomplishment was the new allegiance of the social conservatives to neoliberal economics, accomplished through gender, religion, and race. Would that have been possible without Carter’s own neoliberalism? Most likely not. Rather, Reagan’s success ultimately depended on the prior adoption of neoliberalism by the Democratic Party.

Of course, after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, the Democrats had not returned to New Dealism. Rather, they and the Republicans became a realigned party system: both enacted neoliberal economics, but the GOP did so with a conservative white Christian base of support, while the Democrats did so with the votes of most women, people of color, and non-Christians. Right-wing economics became an absolute consensus and unions were increasingly decimated. By the time of Bill Clinton’s election, working-class people voted solely according to race, gender, and culture, because voting according to class was no longer on the table.

Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that the 90s saw both the speedy rise and the effective collapse of the Green and Labor Parties. For a while, the Greens seemed on the verge of becoming a major political force, and the creation of the Labor Party by unions themselves rather than sect-socialist hobbyists appeared promising. Both parties were vehicles used by the minority of New Dealers who decided to risk pursuing their politics independently, rather than remaining loyal to a Democratic Party that – continuing illusions notwithstanding – was simply never going to listen to them again. And while the Greens were disproportionately drawn from the mass movements of the 60s and 70s while the Labor Party, obviously, emerged from organized labor, their backgrounds in different parts of the New Dealist coalition didn’t negate the basic equivalence of their respective intentions. Of course, the election of George W. Bush, the enormous political pressure exerted by Democrats against their wayward former voters, and the bipartisan expansion of state repression in the Aughts effectively destroyed what potential those dissidents once had. Further, the anti-globalization movement – which challenged neoliberalism directly on an international scale – was destroyed through state violence and post-9/11 political marginalization.

So, until Occupy, the Reagan/Clinton alignment remained basically unchallenged. Whatever its mistakes on the ground, Occupy’s role in re-establishing even a rudimentary awareness of class made it the Left’s greatest achievement in many, many years. The years since Occupy have also seen the largest mass movement renaissance since before Reagan, through #BlackLivesMatter, Fight for 15, #Not1More Deportation, and smaller resurgences in the ecology movement, transgender politics, feminism, tenants’ unions, and ideological socialism. A revived labor militancy has (mostly) not yet materialized, but the prospect grows increasingly more likely. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders achieved the support of millions and began to give political shape to the economic grievances of Millennials, the first generation fully raised under the neoliberal consensus. Granted, Sanders’s socialism is more talk than substance and his politics are basically New Dealist in content. Even so, he was nevertheless the first truly significant electoral challenge to neoliberalism from the Left in the US this century.

The Millennial Left is becoming a generation of radicals on the scale of the 60s and the 30s. It hasn’t yet produced a truly large-scale revolutionary movement, but especially given the post-Trump shift in consciousness, it’s moving that way fast.

But the Millennial Left isn’t neoliberalism’s only challenger.

When the Tea Party emerged, its base was the economically-precarious white middle class. (Bear in mind, “middle class” here only means middle managers, professionals in private practice, and small business owners. The large majority in the US is the working class, which means everyone whose work the ruling class exploits. Most people who think of themselves as middle-class, under these definitions, aren’t. They’re working-class, but they’ve been told otherwise because neoliberals don’t want workers to know they have material interests in common.) At first, the Tea Party pushed a more extreme version of Reagan Republicanism. It fully endorsed neoliberal economics, but due to its racist and chauvinist scapegoating, it rejected even nominal collaboration with elected Democrats. Admittedly, its xenophobia did diverge from neoliberalism (both parties want to keep immigrants criminalized enough to be unable to defend their own interests, but tolerated enough to be present in sufficient numbers for exploitation. As in most matters, they differ not on the “what,” but on the details of the “how”). But Donald Trump has changed all that. His synthesis of racist, sexist, and chauvinist preoccupations with (at least rhetorical) opposition to neoliberal free trade has effectively transformed the Tea Party into something other than neoliberalism’s loyal opposition. The Tea Party, despite its idolization of Reagan, is now a meaningful challenger of Reagan’s consensus from the Right. Further, organizationally, it’s less a wing of the GOP than a separate party that happens to share a ballot line with the Republicans – its activists mainly organize through groups like the Tea Party Express and Americans for Prosperity, rather than Chambers of Commerce or the established Republican Party apparatus, and its candidates have spent more time competing with Republicans than with their shared opponents. Overall, it’s becoming essentially analogous to UKIP, Front National, and the Five Star Movement in combining social conservatism with protectionist economics while rejecting the old-line conservative parties. And for now, because Trump’s opponent was a neoliberal rather than even a soft-Left alternative, it controls the presidency (although not Congress – the Democrats and the neoliberal Republican faction together comprise a majority in both houses).

(Additionally, the idea of Trump’s base as “working-class whites” is essentially an urban myth. Trump supporters are wealthier than the US average and are concentrated in middle management, small business ownership, and professional private practice – in other words, the Tea Party’s middle class. Claiming that a movement that is materially not working-class somehow actually is does, however, serve a political purpose for the Democratic Party: for them, independent working-class politics is a bigger threat than Trump. So, by slandering working-class whites as responsible for the racism and sexism of the white middle class, they’re attempting to prevent any cross-race, cross-gender working-class Left from emerging and declaring its independence.)

Hillary Clinton, like Obama, is a neoliberal Carter Democrat par excellence. She opposes the Left and the interests of the working class. That includes the working class’s people of color as well as its whites, its women as well as its men, and all of its other members, too. However, the side of neoliberalism she pushes – inclusion for women, people of color, LGBT people, and non-Christians within the existing order – still retains substantial support. After all, the academy and the liberal nonprofits have been working since the 80s to develop an “anti-oppression” ideology that opposes working-class solidarity, and after more than thirty years they’ve managed to infect nearly all of the activist subculture with it. So, Clinton and her supporters could claim that Sanders voters’ support for a living wage and union rights is an expression of privilege. They could argue that working-class economics are somehow racist and male chauvinist, and that Clinton’s gender mattered in a way her actual politics didn’t. Clinton, after all, praises Reagan but also praises intersectionality – and the dominant faction of the Democratic Party worked very hard to convince people that to be against Clinton and the ruling class is somehow incompatible with also being against white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia. The results there are plain in that Trump, the racist patriarch, was able to position himself as the system’s only real challenger. If we let them claim that opposing the TPP is sexist, why are we surprised when a sexist benefits from opposing to the TPP?

Fortunately, though, material reality and material interests must eventually win out. Neoliberalism’s hegemony is gone. It now has to compete with both the protectionism of the President-elect’s reactionary Right and the working-class politics of the Millennial Left. Reagan-Carter politics still holds substantial power, but it’s no longer a consensus. For the Left, it’s the biggest opportunity in decades, but also the biggest danger. The neoliberal alignment is collapsing towards the Right as well as towards us. If we don’t manage to win, there’s the risk that the ruling class will directly and fully empower the middle-class Right as a lesser evil, with all the extravagant violence that entails. And as destructive as President Trump will be, we shouldn’t persuade ourselves that such a prospect wouldn’t be much, much worse.

With stakes this high, there are a few things we must prioritize to get our house in order:

  • Don’t waste time with neoliberal Democrats. They won’t be won over to our politics under Trump any more than they were under Reagan or either of the Bushes. Their interests are the opposite of ours: they work for the ruling class, not for us. We need to focus on building our own power on our own terms. They will attempt to do what they did under George W. Bush and claim the mantle of opposition. Challenge them every time they do. Remember the anti-war movement of the Aughts? Because the Democrats succeeded in blaming the Republicans for the wars, the entire movement dissolved after Obama’s election. And Obama, of course, then not only maintained Bush’s war policies, but in many respects expanded them. After all, the wars and the repression were bipartisan from the beginning. The Democrats will attempt the same thing under the Trump Administration. We must not let them.
  • Don’t cede feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT politics to the ruling class. There’s nothing chauvinistic or privileged about working-class economics. Neoliberals tell you otherwise. They’re lying. Fight racism, sexism, and homophobia within the working class while working to develop working-class power. If we don’t bring in the social conservatives of the working class through class-based economics, how on earth will we even, logistically, be able to break down their social conservatism? We shouldn’t ever water down anti-racism, LGBT politics, and feminism. We shouldn’t water down working-class economics, either. However, because material interests win in the end, it’s only through the latter that we can fully gain the ability to pursue the former.
  • Build the mass movements where you are right now. Don’t believe the hype; the Internet and college campuses are no replacement for on-the-ground political work in our own neighborhoods and real-life communities. Instead of using subcultures to find people who already agree with you, seek out people who share your immediate, concrete needs and work with them. That way, you can not only pursue your own collective interests, but also get a chance to develop solidarity with people elsewhere, in different immediate circumstances.
  • Prioritize unions. The ideological, sectist, and subcultural Left is fundamentally alien to organized labor. That’s why it’s so insular, isolated, ineffective, and generally badly-behaved. What we need is what every single mass socialist movement has historically come from: strong and independent organized labor, including both conventional unions and alternate forms like tenants’ unions. We need collective power and organization in the sites of direct conflict with the ruling class. Primarily, that hasn’t stopped meaning workplaces. Otherwise, socialism is nothing but a hobby for isolated individuals and cosplay communists.
  • Bring together protest movements with organized labor. Why shouldn’t #BlackLivesMatter and the tenants’ unions actively organize for each other? Don’t the constituencies of trans politics and the Fight for 15 stand to benefit from each other’s successes? The New Left of the 60s and 70s failed, in part, because it didn’t succeed in properly synthesizing mass protest with organized labor. Let’s not make the same mistake this time. After all, even as we grow we’re stuck on the defensive. Can we afford not to work together?

We’re at the beginning of a period where we may well have the chance to win. However, possibility is a long way from certainty. We aren’t winning yet. The odds, always, are stacked in the ruling class’s favor. Unless we accomplish more than we believe ourselves capable of, we will continue to lose, potentially catastrophically.

Reagan’s ghost has departed – the consensus that Reagan solidified no longer holds. The Millennial Left is beginning to come into its own. The reactionary Right has the presidency, but our opening is still here.

What are you going to do with it?


Sophia Burns is a healthcare worker in the Pacific Northwest. She serves on The North Star’s editorial board and is the chair of Seattle Communists, an affiliate of the Communist Labor Party. She also writes at Gods&Radicals.

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